'On books for young folks' by James Baldwin (1884)
Friday Five: 5 Favourites of 2014 (That Aren't From 2014)

Fiction on Pornokitsch: Survey Results and Your Feedback

Caution - this is loooong. I go through all the results, what conclusions I've drawn from them and then how we'll be responding. I've front-loaded this with the more general information, as that's of use to more people (publishers, blogs, etc) and it gets more specific to Pornokitsch as it goes down. I've been really detailed about this - including a lot of spelling out my thinking - because a) it is fun and b) there's a chance it'll help other bloggers/websites/small publishers. As always, please join in the comments with your own conclusions and recommendations!

Last month, we shared around a survey about "reading short fiction online". We wanted to learn about people's reading habits and also, more specifically, get feedback around our weekly fiction project.

People were really kind about sharing the links around online, so it only seems right to share the results as well. We had a shade under 300 total respondents, about 60% from UK (and about 20% US, with South Africa, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Ireland, Finland and Australia all featuring repeatedly as well). 

Reading habits

The first question (slightly awkwardly phrased) is about how people like to consume their digital, short fiction.

1-How do you read

A few lessons:

  • Desktop ain't dead. Online fiction in the browser window is still the way to go. Possibly hidden behind the spreadsheets you're supposed to be working on.
  • That said, mobile devices are key. At 45%, mobile browsers were a popular pick. We had actually guessed this ahead of time, and held off launching our fiction until our site was moved to a responsive template. And this is also why we don't include heavy-weight imagery with the stories. As much as we'd like to have them, the mobile experience is important.
  • The dominance of Kindle over 'other e-reader' isn't a surprise.
  • What was a surprise? The relative unpopularity of email. Perhaps we're just old-fashioned, but the idea of having stories delivered feels like a touch of luxury. This may, however, be a sign of how little fiction is delivered by email (see below).

Next, a bit about when people might read:

2 - when do you read

I never would've suspected that the evening crowd would've won out. And if you think of how digital short fiction is being packaged by (far larger) publishers and retailers, it is often playing to the commuter and daytime crowd: short fiction as 'snack'. But, ultimately, readers read digital short fiction when they, er, read. Which is, by and large, the evening. (Quite a few people wrote in 'bedtime' as well, and presumably those fall into this category.)

Most of the 'other' responses fell into two categories: 'whenever' and 'never'. The former have irregular schedules (freelance, work from home, variable shifts, etc) and read as/when they can. The latter said they were simply too busy to read digital short fiction (that's to say, they prioritised their other reading whenever they did have time). 

  3 - best length

The people have spoken! This seems pretty clear. There's a 5-20 minutes range, with 5-10 being the sweet spot

Lessons we've learned from this part

Optimise the browser experience. That sounds like digital marketing wank, and... it is. But also true. Currently, Pornokitsch is a blog that also runs short fiction, not a platform that presents short fiction in the best, most readable way. As you'll see below, some of the specific feedback that respondents left is about how we can make the short fiction more 'readable'.

Continue to push stories onto the Kindle. I'm afraid this is a cost/benefit thing when it comes to time and money, so we'll focus on getting our original stories onto the Kindle first. On that note: our experience with the first four titles has been, depending on how you look at it, mixed. People don't want to buy free stories, so the tales aren't exactly storming the Amazon charts. But we've also had a lot of individual, anecdotal feedback from people that are glad to have the stories on their devices, even if they have to pay a little for them. And when we make the stories free as part of a KDP promotion, they're picking up new readers - both for themselves and for the site.

Lunchtime is still the best time to release. And, throughout the day, this gives us a schedule for each story: email to mailing list in the morning (UK), live on site before lunchtime (UK), then prompt on social media in the evening (UK)/lunch (US) with a second timed post for the US evening. 

Look for 1,750 - 3,500 word stories. Based on an average reading speed of 250 wpm, that lands us safely in that 7.5 - 14 minute zone. Our previous stories have ranged from 400 words to 7,000, so it is good to know where we should focus. We'll still showcase some flash fiction and longer works (great stories are great stories), but now we've got the ideal length for most of our weekly stories. And submissions too, when we go that route.

Yes, but what did people say about us?

By the end of the year, we'll have shared over 50 pieces of fiction (and another dozen non-fiction) - a combination of original stories, recent reprints and classic reprints. So, whatever, we're awesome. But do readers think so?

4 - liking the stories

First, I haven't intentionally cropped the table to make the figures look better - I'm not sure what's going on there. But the survey actually ran between 1 and 10, not 1 and 9. Sorry - that's misleading. But, hey, even with that, these are pretty solid results.

The general enjoyment of these stories is backed up by the numbers as well - our Tuesdays are now performing strongly every single week. Traffic is coming from Facebook, Twitter and Reddit as well. Where the stories underperform is in traffic from other websites: our reviews get more links than our stories do, so we'll make more of an effort to get the word out in the future. 

People like the original stories best. Not a huge surprise there, but it is reassuring. Not only the highest average, but also the highest number of '10s' and lowest number of '1s'. That's not a proper statistical way of looking at things, but on surveys like this, people tend to gravitate towards the extremes - so it does help to glance at the highest & lowest votes.

The classic reprints were so average they were polarising. As well as that annoying 6.93 average, the classic reprints also had a lot of 1 votes, 5 votes, and 10 votes. People hate them, people find them meh and people that love them. (Including, again, a lot of really positive feedback in the comments.) The un-pretty secret is that the classic reprints are free, and, as we don't have an income stream for the site), we can't afford to buy fiction on a weekly basis. Plus, we (and many of the respondents) like some of these quirky and forgotten tales - so as things aren't negative, we'll keep it up.

Generally speaking, people were less passionate about the contemporary reprints and the non-fiction reprints - fewer 1s and 10s, a lot of 7s. They're safe, but less exciting. The non-fiction also gets the least traffic of the four categories, but it is also a smaller sample size.

6 - do you read

This question was unhelpful. Genuinely. As the survey reached beyond Pornokitsch readers, it meant that there were respondents that didn't even know who/what we were talking about here. In a perfect world, there'd have been some skip logic involved before the next question, but, instead, I wound up doing a lot of crunching by hand...

7 - how do you prefer

Two curiosities here. The first being that this belies the answer to the first question (way above) - more people read our stories by email than like to read stories by email. I think the answer to this is in the phrasing of that first question. There aren't many places offering email fiction, so people don't have the experience of 'preferring it'. 

Secondly, this graph is wrong. I have the numbers to prove it - based on our analytics, easily twenty times the people read the stories on the website as in email. Probably more. However, that's not a bad kind of wrong. What we know is that the people that answered this question are a) Pornokitsch readers (because they've read the fiction already) and b) passionate enough to answer a survey on the topic. Like the 1s and 10s stunt above, this is a really useful emotional gauge. For our more dedicated readers, email is appreciated.

It was also noted by one respondent that email is a way of getting around the dodginess inherent in the pornokitsch.com URL. Which further reminded me that the whole email list started when our server host went down. The email stays in the picture.

Lessons we've learned from that part

Not too much to add, but a couple key things:

Keep the email stories. If you just based the email decision on results of the first question (plus, again, the cost/benefit that comes with the time spent on designing each week's email), you'd scrap it. But what we can deduce is that the folks that use the email are our most loyal readers. And frankly, they can have whatever they want. (You're awesome.)

Get better at surveys. Seriously, skip logic. And think more clearly about question design. I write surveys all the time, and there's always something new and surprising. 

Surveys are marketing tools. Again, not a direct lesson - but had to squeeze this in here somewhere. As the survey went more broadly, we picked up new subscribers to the fiction mailing list.

Open feedback

And, finally, the open question  - we asked "is there anything you'd like to see more of, or that we could be doing better?". I'll cover off the comments and our responses together...

"I like the editor's comments that are provided for some of the stories. Whatever my opinion of the story, it's interesting to read something about the author, the context, why it was chosen, etc."

There were a few variations on this - including a request that the editor (cough) add notes for the original fiction as well as the reprints. My initial approach was that the editor's comments were 'added value' for email subscribers. I don't think it'll take anything away from email subscribers if we add the notes to the site as well. (Plus, they still get the emails early.)

"My major issue is the amount of black-on-white text. Paragraphs in short stories are often longer than in non-fic, plus there is often not a line space between paragraphs which can physically make it a struggle to read. Compare with, say, Lightspeed, which has a thin column and less text-per-page."

This is really helpful. Pornokitsch is always a work-in-progress (I fiddle, what can I say?) but ultimately, it has always been designed as a blog - with a blog layout for articles and reviews, not fiction. Here's Lightspeed. Also Tor.com. And Medium. All of them - when they bust out the longer content - have a template that's designed for that sort of reading experience. 

We've got a proper redesign cooking which will address things like type and art (oooh!) - and, as part of that, we will do fancy-shmancy stuff with the page styles to ensure that the fiction 'posts' read differently (better) than the article posts. I look forward to trying, at the very least.

"If I can print the stories on three or fewer pieces of A4 to read at leisure, I'll do that."

This never occurred to us. The length bit should fit with the new ideal wordcount range, and we'll test out printing as part of the upcoming redesign. 

"I would always select the option to download fiction if it were made available."

Having the downloadable files ready at the same time the HTML goes out may involve more of a lead time than I will ever have. If we get the Kindle process worked out and print-friendliness sorted (which would help people make PDFs, at least), that should hopefully solve this for most situations.

"Add reading times to each story (e.g. <5 minutes, 5-10 minutes), making it easier for folks to plan when they'll have a read."

It was also noted that Medium do this, and we also think Medium are awesome. We'll try to find a way to add this elegantly. It may be that once our stories are all 'of a length', this becomes a sort of default 10 minutes, with special notification if a story is super-short or super-long.

"More non-Anglophone authors."

Two non-exclusive thoughts.

So the first is a very literal interpretation, which is to publish more work in translation, which I would love to do. That said, I can't do anything about it unless it is already translated. (As with, say, Nir Yaniv's "The Word of God" or Pu Songling's "The Blood Drinker".) 

The second is to use more authors from outside of the UK/US genre axis, and to that - yes. This is something I want too. The old, out-of-copyright reprint stuff is going to be very UK/US-centric by the very nature of the archives available to me. For newer work, I've got my eyes peeled and offers already out for a few pieces - both original and reprint - with more to come. 

"Open subs. Open subs. Open subs."

This came up a lot. Here's the thing: open subs are a lot of work, and I need to balance that with everything else. That's the selfish part. And the unselfish part is that it isn't fair to the writers if I accept stories before I can tell people I know how many stories I can take, when I can take them, and how quickly I can give feedback. And I can't answer any of those right now.

Which is a long-winded way of saying: "April-ish."


What, all three?! You're very demanding.